sand falling from woman's handMy brain
is built
upon the sand
and the hourglass just
ran out


My Anti Brain-Fog Notebook

How a simple notebook lets me work through depression

Yup, I’m “that” one. The person who makes endless notes and lists. Post-its stuck to post-its, scraps tucked everywhere. I write things on my to-do list even after they’re done, and then cross them off. Crazy, right? But there’s a method to my madness.

Actually, it’s my method for dealing with my “madness” – or at least with the mental fog and distortion that comes with depression.

depressed woman CC0When I’m depressed, my brain plays all sorts of chemical tricks. The fog descends, projects become tangles, and deadlines loom crazily, far out of proportion to reality. Everything seems too overwhelming, and as my brain spins I waste even more time kicking myself for procastinating. Plus my memory goes all to hell.

(The flip side is, when I’m hypomanic, I start all sorts of things, get easily distracted, and the next thing I know I’ve spent an entire morning flitting all over the internet or reorganizing a closet, and not touching any of the things I really need to get done.)

Incidentally, most planners I’ve tried are too nitpicky.  Manic-me futzes with them all the time, and depressed-me ends up leaving half the pages blank and still losing track of the important things.

Thus the notebook!

How it started

I first began logging my tasks and projects at my old design job, where, when annual reviews rolled around, you suddenly had to quantify your entire year’s workload and accomplishments. I didn’t log every hour I spent (I’m anal when I’m manic, but that’s just nuts); I just jotted ballpark amounts (two weeks designing this gift collection, with six meetings and that side project cutting into it, so it ran a day over, etc.) I also started logging major announcements, important conversations with bosses. Then when someone came back two weeks later and asked, “Why did you do that?” I could pull out the notebook and say, “Well, on June 4th, Manager X told me to change such-and-such; in fact here’s what she said.” I didn’t use everything, and didn’t need the log part often, but it saved my butt on many occasions.

And not just because a corporate design studio is a crazy-paced, task-juggling environment. Also because my head is a crazy place, alternately foggy or jumbled, or occasionally both. Today, keeping a notebook still serves me well for my own business.

Here’s how it works

task notebook

simpler and cheaper than a planner (click to view)

On the right-hand pages, I keep a running to-do list, tagging details like names and phone numbers under notes to call, affixing dates to key tasks I may need to check back on. (Um, when did I mail that package?) If there’s an especially time-sensitive item, I highlight it so it stands out. If something gets postponed a week, I draw an arrow, and recopy the task on a later page, with an approximate new deadline. Call back reminders, ditto.

When I’m foggy with depression, I can still usually drag my butt to the studio and glance over the list. I may shy away from any contact with the outside world; I may feel every task on the list is far too overwhelming, and that I’ll never get anything done. But I can usually pick one thing. Then I can make a nice big check mark when it’s done. I glance down the page, see there are more checks than blank circles.

“See?” I tell myself. “You can get things done! Now. .. maybe one more?”

The left-hand pages are for logging phone calls, meeting notes, instructions, things to look up, and the like. Anything I may need to reference again down the road. (Like, what did I quote that client for the oil portrait of her daughter’s horse? What was her phone number? Oh, and what was the daughter’s name? – I’m SO crappy with remembering names, even when my brain is working right!)

So even if I cringe to do it, I can call that client back … all my details are right there, so it’s usually far easier to do than my lethargic brain thinks. Even though she can’t see me, I smile; I know from experience it makes me “sound” more cheerful, calm and confident. (A little psych trick for you guys.) Then I can hang up, big sigh, and add another satisfying check mark.

cloud covering sunChinks in the cloud

The notebook isn’t magic; it won’t work if I hide in bed or putz around my kitchen doing odd chores (that could be put off) rather then hit the studio. Sometimes I’m in the studio and depression still envelops me in its toxic molasses, and I don’t cross off thing one. But the notebook has held me together more times than I can count. It helps me switch my mental state to the back burner long enough to move forward, one step at a time.

And every little ray of accomplishment I get from crossing something off is one more chink in depression’s I-can’t-do-it cloud.



spiders-web-644923_cc0I’m told the trouble lies
deep in my synapses
both spider and maze
embedded and threaded,
the warping of my weft,
strings plucked to sound
sorrow or shrill,
strings pulled
to make me dance darkly,
venomous strands casting
long shadows
over all I see.

there is today.
And today there is sun
enough to disentangle
the threads of me.

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